Coversations With Game: Abdication of Design

The following is a conversation that I witnessed happening on Twitter and I thought that it would be a shame to have it lost to the fleetingness of the way Twitter works. These kinds of conversations go on all the time, but usually they disappear after a few hours and aren’t able to be located again. So I checked with everyone to see if they would be alright with me putting it together into a readable form, and then throwing it up on my blog. I received no objections.

The conversation started when Naomi Clark (@metasynthie) asked the question “Is the “abdication of design” phenomenon really a problem, or just a series of missed expectations sprouting from design idealism?” and many people joined in to help tackle the question. The participants included: Naomi Clark, Mattie Brice, Raph Koster, Harvey Smith, Liz Ryerson, Ben Johnson, Lex Johnson, Brendan Vance, Todd Harper, and Stephen Winson.

First, though, a few caveats. Twitter is a very interwoven place and trying to follow a “single conversation” can be very difficult. I may have missed some parts of the conversation that shot off of a particular tweet that I didn’t happen to chase down into the rabbit hole. Secondly, the nature of Twitter is very parallel, meaning that people respond to replies while other people are still replying to earlier tweets. This can make it very hard to track a single topic from amongst the many different topics being discussed at the same time. It was my aim to arrange the tweets in such a fashion that they can be read without being interrupted by tangents. This means that often the tweets don’t appear exactly in chronological order. Some topics were moved to a place where they better made sense, and where they did not seem out of place. There were about four main topics in the conversation: discussing abdication of design, discussing the relationship of critics/academics/designers/players, Towerfall and emergence, and ‘good design’ vs. ‘bad design’. I’ve grouped the tweets under those categories and tried to make the transitions from one topic to another more natural than disjointed.

As a logistical note, Twitter only allows for 140 character messages, and a number of that gets eaten up by the large number of people included in the discussion. As such, sometimes people will explain longer thoughts over multiple tweets. If it was obvious that this was what was happening, I generally put them all as one statement, where the original statement was located. Most often, this affected Raph Koster’s tweets, as he (like me) can be very verbose so as to get a point across clearly. I’m hoping that I haven’t changed the meaning of any part of the conversation by any of these modifications. If you think I have, just let me know and I’ll see what I can do about it.

For the format of this whole thing, I’ve decided to try to pretend that this was a conversation people were having in a group or panel discussion. The person’s name and the corresponding twitter handle are on the first line, then the next line will have what they said. In this particular conversation, many people talk over each other or respond to earlier comments whenever they can, so it can get a bit jumbled at times. Trust me when I say that this is easier to track than it is on Twitter. Without any further explanation, here’s the conversation:

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Is the “abdication of design” phenomenon really a problem, or just a series of missed expectations sprouting from design idealism?”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“Is there a specific reference to ‘abdication of design’? Haven’t heard that before”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Maybe not as a specific phrase? It’s a kinda thing I’ve heard people talking about a lot in the last year (some pro, some con)”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“what does it mean exactly?”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“What is meant by it? Is Twitter a bad place to ask?”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“When the design of a game is left unfinished or open such that players have to fill in the blanks somehow.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“isn’t that all games? :) I assume you mean mechanically unfinished tho?”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“e.g. Games w/ many settings you must tweak to “make your own game.” Open-ended games where you make your own goals. House-rules may be an edge case but many designers feel players shouldn’t have to fix/balance anything. Risk Legacy, which the designer deliberately left incomplete in terms of balance, so that players would have to.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“Prolly just being nitpicky, but it still feels like a finished design?”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“What does? I guess the point at which a design is “adequately complete” varies on personal opinion.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“True, I guess I’m on the end of complete is complete and that’s the experience you want the player to have”

Ben Johnson ‏(@GameDesignerBen)
“Risk Legacy was the first game that came to mind for me, but I think that’s not quite right.”

Ben Johnson ‏(@GameDesignerBen)
“I think Risk Legacy gamifies play balancing. You have specific nerf and buff moves to play.”

Ben Johnson ‏(@GameDesignerBen)
“The ultimate cost of which is whether the game is in a playable state when those moves are spent.”

Ben Johnson ‏(@GameDesignerBen)
“Consider this in context of D&D, which appears to have many detailed rules, but is houseruled in rlty”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Reading history of early D&D, it’s apparent it was NEVER one unified set of rules/playstyles.”

Ben Johnson ‏(@GameDesignerBen)
“The “system matters” indie RPG scene grew as a response to this. At first w/ rules light games”

Ben Johnson ‏(@GameDesignerBen)
“Like My Life With Master. I think Fiasco is sort of exemplar of that in some ways.”

Ben Johnson ‏(@GameDesignerBen)
“But then you’ve got Apocalypse World & Monsterhearts, which are crunchy, but built on”

Ben Johnson ‏(@GameDesignerBen)
“very specific use cases for rules: “When you do this, role dice like this.””

Ben Johnson ‏(@GameDesignerBen)
“3rd & 4th edition were both failed attempts at mitigating house rules, but 2nd ed was just insane.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“suspect the rise of “originalist” stuff is in part to recapture the freer spirit”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“When people say “abdication” I imagine they mean “designer could have done more to facilitate this and refused.””

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“IDK if this kind of reaction is more from player POV (“you’re gonna make ME do your job? why didn’t YOU do it”) or based on a notion of what a designer’s job “IS” and how thorough a vision you “ought to” convey, etc.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“I guess I need to see an example”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Sounds like it is used as a criticism. I think the examples you give are diverse. If we use it as a positive term e.g. a deliberate choice by the designer, then stuff like Risk L you could call that sorta. But open-ended or non-gop games, that doesn’t fit, sounds like it is ONLY used as derogatory there. Diff between “you abdicated yr responsibility w/o giving up throne” vs “I choose to give up throne for a reason””

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“Abdication of Design is maybe a bad choice of words, but it’s not about “not finishing.” It’s about designing systems that enable players to play creatively.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Henry Jenkins as this notion of participatory design, that’s probably a more fruitful term”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“When someone gives up a throne, there’ll ALWAYS be those who see it as an unethical flight from responsibility, eh”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“For some reason I’m not getting this :/ How is this different from anything else?”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“That term arose when many video “games” were all about scripted outcomes vs games systems. ie, “figure out what the designer wanted” games vs Poker or Minecraft”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Yeah as @raphkoster said. There’s a fuzzy line where some see choices that players shouldn’t have to deal with. e.g. dominant strategies that make a game boring; can you just rely on players to house-rule them out?”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“weird, sounds like gatekeeping to me”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“My definition of ‘game’ is broad and flexible btw. (I love systems but also informal games.)”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“I first heard the term as Abdication of Authorship, which is better.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“Hasn’t it always been a main paradigm that the player ‘completes’ the game?”

Stephen Winson ‏(@StephenWinson)
“Maybe major buy by no means only. Pole Position, Pac Man, etc, all uncompletable”

Stephen Winson ‏(@StephenWinson)
“Arguable that video games that could be completed were the minority until NES era.”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“I agree entirely with your (and Jenkins’) framing and I’m curious about those who see it negatively.”

Lex Johnson ‏(@kingoforigin)
“I think a lot of people feel that a game is “complete” and a player “experiences it” Much like a book. However, there’s been a thought shift to accept that players shape their own experiences simply by being the one to experience it.”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Yeah, I suspect that’s at the root of some “you didn’t do your WHOLE job” criticisms.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“Well that’s still what you do with other media, so I guess that’s my train of thought”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“these just seem like WEIRD criticisms. It’s possible I’m super dense, sorry”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“Yeah, all media invites interpretation, as you said; games can also be more overtly manipulated to aesthetic effect.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“No, I think there are also multiple things muddled together As stupid hypothetical examples: Game with rules that require a player to add a rule in order for system to function; Game w/o missing parts designed to encourage/enable players to create house rules; Game designed as a play space w/o goals; Game with an experience that requires interpretation to ascertain a point; Game as above that leaves the point up to the player altogether. These are all things that might be accused of “abdication” — heck, MY games were. But they are very different. And I suspect that the last two are types where the assumption that the player’s response is “completion” is very relevant”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Agreed. Probably why I’m puzzling over what’s mixed into that stew of expectations.”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“It’s just hard to talk about games. But I <3 the variety of approach, use and form.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“But then, the game is a cultural object surrendered and fixing might be a part of the exp”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“re: fixing it – totally agree; creates engagement, teaches”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“Well, isn’t the idea of balance kind of weird too? Unless you meant to be balanced and you weren’t”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Yeah I think there’s some conflation of intention with effect in these criticisms.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“Yeah, if you intended it, then you succeed. If you didn’t intend but like the effect, you succeed if you didn’t intend but someone likes the effect… I think you may still succeed too. I guess ‘bad design’ is just what you want didn’t happen or what happened isn’t what you liked”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“A lot of this fully depends on your creative goals – toy, formal system, journal, shared perspective”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“I guess what’s more in question is the criticism’s goals really. what is this criticism aiming to do? How do they intend to affect the game/community “

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“re criticism’s goals – yes, and very interesting”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“Video games seem to have much more mingling of critics and makers; wonder if that’s bad”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“I super encourage it, the separation of criticism and art in other fields is fucking annoying”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“that mingling has definitely enlightened, challenged and delighted (?) me for a long while.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“I actually think we need more and a more recognized effort of this interaction really I find it only really happens in academic settings though with more indies it’s easier to be friends with devs “

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“But sometimes – while it also promotes growth – it can be creatively restrictive.”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“Sometimes you just have to *make*.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“I think it’s a growing trend for critics to develop games re: DIY movement”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Many yrs ago I was on a panel with Randy Pausch & other academics about dev/aca collaboration & one of the key things I tried to get across is that dev usually has a very specific goal or intent Money, Expression, Art, Bestt Platformer Ever, whatever& a common frustration u hear from devs is that “crit isn’t USEFUL”; left unstated is “to that goal””

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“I love seeing critics, writers, thinkers engage in the game design process.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Flip side is aca/crit saying “broaden yr goals, there’s more out there””

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“yeah but we know here this is a false dichotomy”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“To ground the topic a little: this most recently came up with a few criticisms I heard of Towerfall.”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“Naomi, I think I understand, but will you elaborate?”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Well, if Towerfall, then it’s prolly meant as a criticism of dynamics emerging from system design”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Seeing a way players can/should “complete,” thinking “did you MEAN to do that or is it lazy/mistakes?””

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Specifically: there are tons of tweakable settings, in which players can FIND a really good variant.”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“ah, yes”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“I know it’s a broader question, but in the specific Towerfall example, I’ve heard a couple different people mention that thing in private discussions re: “could this game have achieved TRUE GREATNES “

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“lolol whatever people are silly esp when it mean highlighting an unspoken measuring stick of excellence”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“I think the question was: if X=incredibly good variant, why did the designers not find/foreground it?”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“I see though that assumes there’s a quantitatively good setting, right?”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Yeah it was like, a group played & all had SO much MORE fun w/ 1 setting. Subjective but significant.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“Yeah and it’s like can they not imagine anyone else really liking other settings more?”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Or they can, but want to maximize the number of ppl who enjoy the exp as a whole”

Todd Harper ‏(@laevantine)
“I get the feeling a lot of people think “We have to respect emergence!” Because games being “emergent” is highly valued, they don’t “lock down” options.”

Todd Harper ‏(@laevantine)
“I wish I could say more but most of my examples are e-sports/FGC-y and I just don’t today”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Yeah, and in turn there’s definitely reaction against the valuing of emergence/openness.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Interesting. For me designing for emergence has never meant “leave everything open.””

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“For sure, toward authored experience. Good dialectic.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“I think it’s because emergence always happens, people just fetishize the most visible kind”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Hmm. Authored exp seems to me like the dominant current by far, for a Loooong while now.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Tempted to call it the trivial kind. Valorization of emergence happening DESPITE the construct feels to me like a bit of a fig leaf. All too easy to say “Oh, I’m emergent! YOu can enter a name!” or whatever when structurally it’s really an experience aimed at the opposite “

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“I would not use the word fettish in that way; when players exploit systems creatively it can be beautiful.”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“I think I’m being fair, it’s shifted attitudes enough to be dismissive of other things”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“We live in an environment where we’ve trained players to expect certain things”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“Sure it can be beautiful but it’s held so importantly that it’s a hidden value judgement”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Yes! But bg diff when that done w the designer’s collaboration/encouragement, & not”

Harvey Smith (@Harvey1966)
“That’s fair.”

[[Editor's Note: The following exchanges stemmed off of Mattie Brice's mention of 'bad design' earlier in the conversation.]]

Liz Ryerson ‏(@ellaguro)
“at this point i’m a lot more interested in “bad design” than “good design””

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“to be honest I never understood good/bad design, but I get what you mean and yeah me too”

Liz Ryerson ‏(@ellaguro)
“imo there’s a weird kind of fascism underlying the idea of “good design” as it exists now”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“I did a whole riff on good & bad design :) http://bit.ly/1cR2LME &#8220;

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Suspect you two would disagree with elements of it based on your personal aesthetics tho”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“There are so many divergent views on good and bad game design; that’s a good thing.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“I actually am very SUPPORTIVE of words like Good and Bad, as long as they are always grounded within a context. Good At, Bad At. Good For, Bad For. Without that you can’t have things like “Improvement.” But it’s important to grok the axis.”

Liz Ryerson ‏(@ellaguro)
“”good” to most people in games just means “it sold a lot of copies, so it must be right””

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“Yeah, Raph – judgement w/o context is not as useful.”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“That definitely doesn’t apply to most game designers I know.”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“”Design”=grounded in ideas of craft/science, like it can be objectively useable/achieve aims”

Naomi Clark ‏(@metasynthie)
“Like @4xisblack pointed out when writing about Problem Attic: http://blog.brendanvance.com/2013/11/02/problem-attic/ …&#8221;

Liz Ryerson ‏(@ellaguro)
“i feel like most designers’ def. of “good” is heavily rooted in player/consumer approval, there are good and bad reasons for that, but it does echo to market-driven mindset to me “

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Devs deserve more credit than that; most all I know love many commercial failures”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“If I’m not mistaken I think Liz means player-centric design is often caught up in values passed down by consumerism, not necessarily being consumerist intentionally “

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“But over 2 decades making games, those same people also love weird experiments.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Yes, market influence is huge. But also for many a genuine populist desire to touch ppl”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“”Want this to work for lots of ppl” can mean either one.”

Liz Ryerson ‏(@ellaguro)
“they’re not doing a good enough job of articulating their ideas then ;)”

Brendan Vance ‏(@4xisblack)
“IMO design is falsifiable; it has a goal and you can test its effectiveness”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“oh that’s not what I mean, just that our relationship with players has been heavily mediated by capital and we have the option to more rigorously untangle that”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“Imo, game designers are much too varied in their game interests to be lumped together.”

Brendan Vance ‏(@4xisblack)
“Since games are mostly software they inherit a lot from, say, Donald Norman”

Brendan Vance ‏(@4xisblack)
“And as a result their goal is often ‘be easy to use and understand'”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“You should be saying “we” not they! We are all devs here. :)”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“From a craft perspective, I agree. But it’s not the only perspective to take”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“many pesky critc/devs too”

Mattie Brice ‏(@xMattieBrice)
“or really there’s no need to distinguish between the two”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“A good example: if I am on a judging panel, I 1st try to assess the dev intent, Then gven context, I can do craft eval on how well I think they executed. That’s v different from “is it fun” or “does it work for a large audience””

Brendan Vance ‏(@4xisblack)
“We’ve given up a lot in the quest for ‘easy to use/understand’ a lot of ppl seem invested in excluding those who make smaller/”not”games from that label”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“Brendan, sure, some. But conversely, others design for “evoking mystery.””

Liz Ryerson ‏(@ellaguro)
“what if your whole craft eval is driven by your own deeply internalized norms?”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“I agree, and I like the counter-reaction to ease of use dominance. Some probably want to exclude (in every field); others to embrace, pass the torch.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“It is! But is every person’s subjective judgement of anything. That’s why you try to have diverse panels, I suppose”

Harvey Smith ‏(@Harvey1966)
“Yes, it’s a constant struggle to see past ourselves; to share another view.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“I see that plenty but not usually from the crowd I interact with. Often from non-designers (e.g. other disciplines, art, coding, etc)”

Liz Ryerson ‏(@ellaguro)
“s’hard to have diverse panels when some voices aren’t even acknowledged by the structure of those events”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Also agree. Ease of use IMHO has gone too far in many ways.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“You can’t have my torch, I’m not done with it. ;)”

Liz Ryerson ‏(@ellaguro)
“you probably shouldn’t pass it to me anyway, i’ll just try to set everything on fire =P”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“Yeah, that’s why diverse events. And so on. It’s not just a systemic problem, it’s a human problem.”

Raph Koster ‏(@raphkoster)
“I’d rather you light yr torch from it, but let me keep setting my OWN things on fire. ;)”

 

That’s the end of the conversation! Feel free to follow any of the participants on Twitter: Naomi Clark, Mattie Brice, Raph Koster, Harvey Smith, Liz Ryerson, Ben Johnson, Lex Johnson, Brendan Vance, Todd Harper, and Stephen Winson

One thought on “Coversations With Game: Abdication of Design

  1. Wow, sad I missed this one! Glad that it came around to designer intent – that’s what I was thinking throughout reading this. What is the core of the game? What is the design purpose of leaving the game “incomplete” and how does that support the core (or not)? That’s the yardstick I’d use to measure whether this is “good” design or “lazy” design.

    Brenda Romero’s “Train” is intentionally incomplete. The rules require your interpretation to even start play. But in that game it’s brilliant: it forces players to be complicit in what they do. No one can say “don’t blame me for what happened, I was just following the rules” – because you as a player MADE the rules complete. So in that case it’s not “abdication” of design responsibility, it is in fact very careful and deliberate design to leave such holes.

    By contrast, when I get into the same “I don’t know how to proceed here because the rules don’t tell me” situation when playing a tabletop game designed by one of my students, it’s generally unintentional. They didn’t playtest or proofread enough to realize that their game is incomplete, or they knew it but were just too lazy to bother filling in the details. In that case, shame on the designer! (And probably the instructor. Shame on me, too.)

    For a video game with an options menu that looks like a flight cockpit, is part of the core of the game something that’s supported by such a thing? I could imagine a kind of “never the same game twice!” thing where it randomized the options each time, and dealing with different “house rules” every play session was part of the charm. Or if it’s something like Minecraft or Second Life or GTA or Neverwinter Nights where customizing your experience and shaping it into what you want IS the game, mostly – in that case, a massive options screen makes sense because it just solidifies that whole “you can do ANYTHING here” feel, so it would probably be good design there. But in something like a linear rail shooter where the whole point is a custom-designed unified experience, lots of customizable options makes no sense and would probably just be chalked up to the designers not taking the time to figure out the “best” options through playtesting (and shame on them, professionals should know better).

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